Monday 26 January 2015

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young "Looking Forward" (1999)

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Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young "Looking Forward" (1999)

Faith In Me/Looking Forward/Stand And Be Counted/Heartland/Seen Enough/ Slowpoke/Dream For Him/No Tears Left/Out Of Control/ Someday Soon/Queen Of Them All/Sanibel

"You're always in a place where you don't want to be when you arrive" or "practising psychiatry without a license!"

Back in 1969 the world needed CSN. The cold war, political machinations and Vietnam meant that Crosby, Stills and Nash's energetic cries for peace love and understanding were the perfect backdrop to riots, protests and a growing sense of anger at the interpretation of the American Dream. There the three proudly sit on their first album cover, unconventionally in the wrong order, staring out the camera with an I-dare-yer smirk, larger than life. By 1999 the world didn't need CSN or even CSNY. The cold war had melted a decade earlier, it was accepted truth that politicians were going to lie or at least alter the truth to look good and wars tended to be sudden and sporadic, more often than with the Americans 'helping' in international matters rather than invading to plant the flag. There they stand on the CD booklet teeny tiny conventionally in the right order, their aged faces treated with some ghastly trendy then-modern computer graphics, with a better-look-good-for-the-camera smile that just isn't them at all, suddenly smaller than life. Even allowing for the fact that a bunch of fifty-year olds on their latest album are unlikely to have the potency of a hot new band created and shaped by the times, something has clearly gone wrong somewhere. For all the title's claims and the welcome presence of Crosby's toddler Django on the front cover (thus fitting the idea of this album being made for the 'next generation') there's something sleepy and weary about this record which we'd never heard from CSNY before, together or apart. At least in the past their albums had been bad enough to warrant passionate responses from a confused media press, but strangely this album - only the third to feature the full quartet - went almost un-noticed by the press and a lot of their fans. The older CSN were sometimes laughed at, criticised for being naive or rich or not knowing what the hell they were talking about but they'd always caused some response from their audience before. The silence that greeted this project, from the very moment it was announced, was eerie. The world had moved on. CSNY had not. End of story.

However, as we all now know (apart from Rip Van Winkle) the new century that CSNY were looking forward to here was prime CSNY territory: the millennium just about to start, the band 'knowing they could make a difference'. When the modern world gets written down in history books it may well record that the first and possibly decade of the 21st century were the most corrupt in history, full of scandal after scandal, with terrorist plots, faked election counts and illegal retaliatory wars in the wrong frigging continent. I was actually playing this album - then two years old - when the planes hit the second of the twin towers on 9/11 and could still hear this record, on repeat, as the events unfolded (I'd missed the first). It seemed highly apt somehow, as the CD spun round and round on repeat, cutting through all the gun/gung-ho nationalistic guff that to my alarm was coming not just from America (where it was expected) but from Britain too. 'We have to find out who did this'. 'We have to do this to them'.'We have to fight back'. In that moment CSNY were needed more than ever before, telling us not to declare a war but to 'have faith', to not retaliate straight away while the Western world was still hurting but to look forward to 'someday soon' when we'll 'see the light of day', to 'stand and be counted' by searching for the truth not for what the president (or the prime minister - Tony Blair was just as bad) told us was the truth. This record suddenly made sense, a prescient warning in two ways: to look out for  and solve injustice wherever it lay (an old CSNY mantra they had from the first) and to keep on doing your own thing, whether that got dismissed as irrelevant middle age or not. In time CSNY will fight their way back to, if not quite the forefront, then at least the front of the second tier of 'old acts' thanks to the ripples that 9/11 causes: the 'Freedom Of Speech' tour of 2006, 'Let's Impeach The president', the 'Deja Vu' concert film documentary, Crosby and Nash running for joint mayoral office and campaigning for Barack Obama before most people knew who he was...with this record sounding a little like a 'false start' two years early, a super-hero getting his costume on before he's actually been called into service.

Now I'm not saying that CSNY knew that a terrorist plot was about to happen - that's plainly daft. There's no conspiracy theories here I'm afraid, no mention of planes, bombs or explosions, although goodness knows there are enough weird things out there in the music world from the period just before the attacks (check out The Coup's rap album 'Party Music' from June 2001 if you ever get the chance - criticised by people for being 'sick' by showing smoke pouring out of the twin towers while one of the band holds up his drumsticks as if 'orchestrating' events, not everybody seemed to realise this record came out shortly before the attack! If that isn't a warning I don't know what is...) However 'Looking Forward' sounds in retrospect like a 'warning'. While politics were a CSN theme from the first and 'After The Storm', the previous CSN album, is if anything even more concerned with what's happening with the outside world that record tends to be local (most of the songs take place on a nearby 'street' where Crosby rides his bike, young punks 'lean on' and Stills views Bad Boyz in teenage gangs) - the events on this record are global, something big. Crosby bounces back from the relative 'failure' of his songs on 'After The Storm' to his fighting best, urging the world to 'stand up for truth' wherever they can, wherever they can even though there was nothing obvious on 1999 to stand up for. His other song 'Dream For Him' has him imagining the day he has to explain the evil and corruption of the world to his new-born son. Stills, meanwhile, dismisses the past decade of affluence and prosperity with the snarling rap song (yes, rap!) 'Seen Enough' attacking each generation from his own to the then-present day, 'removed from reality by silicon diodes' and claiming that the world is a pot about to over-boil. Elsewhere Nash chips in with his usual soothing ballad 'Someday Soon' but even that seems to hint at some bigger catastrophe than his usual it'll-get-better songs, while 'Heartland' has the message to the band 'we've been running so far away from where our lives belong' as if he knows that they'll be needed soon. Neil, meanwhile, chips in with the pointed 'Out Of Control' and uses similar lines in his other songs like the title track and 'Slowpoke'. If I was a music historian from a later time period I'd have happily labelled this as one of those 'troubled' immediately post-9/11 albums when the world's morality seemed to be turned on its axis and nobody knew who the bad guys were anymore, concerned with truth, justice and liberty. Instead 'Looking Forward' came out in a nothing year where the only big news internationally was concerned with the best way of celebrating the millennium a year later - which was particularly daft given that the millennium actually started the next year in 2001!

Of course, just because this album has taken on extra meaning over the years, that doesn't mean this record is necessarily any good. The second CSNY record, 1988's 'American Dream' was generally regarded as a disappointment: too many bland songs, way too many ballads and with a sappy late-80s production that zapped all of the drama out of the band. The good news is that one of these three items has finally been fixed: following on from the good work of 'After The Storm' CSNY finally sound like themselves, with a nicely retro production filled with actual proper performances and as close to live performances as possible (remarkably this makes most of 'Looking Forward' the first ever CSNY album where all four men played at the same time - there are a few exceptions on 'Deja Vu' like 'Helpless' 'Almost Cut My Hair and 'Woodstock' but otherwise both the rest of that record and 'Dream' are overdub city). However the bad news is that there are even more ballads than ever before, with Neil especially assuming that CSN are a 'folkie' band who need the softer songs from his back catalogue akin to 'Helpless' rather than the rage and zeal behind 'Ohio' or the epic mystery of 'Country Girl'. Yet again his songs are his least interesting of the entire decade, CSNY getting a rum deal once more, even though the few reviewers who heard this album automatically gave Neil the most credit simply because he was the only band member they could name. Nash too is reduced to sweet ballads, a shame after his recent solo album 'Songs For Survivors', while similarly slow tempo-wise, is a much darker and scarier ride. Only Crosby and Stills are writing rock songs and the sad truth is that at best only three of them come off. While lyrically there's a lot going on in this album, musically 'Looking Forward' sounds more like a snoozefest, with Neil's laughable comments on the title track about 'trying not to use the word 'old'' whenever the band are together sounds more like the truth than the edgy humour it's meant to be. Few people around to hear those remarkable records in 1969 and 1970 would have guessed that CSNY would simply fall into old age with as much comfort and as little noise as here. Far from raging against the light, this is a flickering candle a mere pop song away from extinguishing altogether.

This record shouldn't have been like this and they started, as usual, with all the best intentions. CSN had been without a record deal ever since Atlantic had dropped them in 1994 (to put that in context, they'd been the label's poster-buddies for so long that this was the equivalent of EMI sacking Paul McCartney, or - ahem - Neil Young leaving his cosy nook Reprise for a dodgy independent label run by David Geffen, whoops!) However they still felt they had things to say and felt they had a better chance in the record industry if they stayed together for once and out of solidarity had stayed together ever since for a series of tours (interrupted only by Crosby's new and thrilling band CPR whose first record came out in 1998). The band still hadn't found a record deal in 1999 but had a pile of songs they wanted to sing and, undeterred, set off to record them at California's Ocean Studios funded with their own money. Stills had an idea for a guitar part on his song 'Faith In Me' which sounded a bit like Neil in his head and he just couldn't get to work. So he rang up his old collaborator/competitor, sent over the tape and asked him to come on down, not expecting hi to ever say yes (this is a man who won't even turn up for recordings he's meant to be on, never mind calls out of the blue!) Against all odds Neil arrived, declared that he loved the tiny amount of material that had been recorded up to this point and was impressed that the band were going it alone. Excitedly he agreed to join the project as a full-time member and played the trio demos from his latest album in the works, the very CSN-like 'Silver and Gold' (out in 2000), telling them they could 'pick out the best' which they'd re-record together. This, surely, should have been the golden moment, with Neil making this album not as a career launching pad or to help out old friends but as a fully signed up participant for the one and only time (so far, in the studio, at the time of writing...) Neil also brought added clout from his own label Reprise, who were more than happy to get three extra superstars attached to their new Neil Young record effectively as a 'bonus' on top of the record he had waiting in the wings, and suddenly had both the finance and backing to record this album for as long as they liked. Which was a while, with sessions dating back to November 1996 and running to as late as July 1999. By the end of the project CSNY actually found themselves in surplus for the first time ever, with far too many songs to go on a single album. The choices they faced were either releasing the whole lot as a double CD (which is what Crosby and Nash did when a similar thing happened to them in 2004) or featuring only the very best. This involved some animated discussion about what was the 'best' so in a neat mimic of the democratic system they'd fought so hard to protect through the years the quartet all 'voted' in a 'secret ballot' with numbers out of ten beside each song they'd recorded until now (a vote which had to be done again when it was revealed that Crosby had voted 'ten' for each of his songs and 'zero' for the others, thus turning the album into something of a Crosby-fest; that might be why he only ends up with two on the finished product!)

But alas a lack of decent songs - and certainly a lack of a variety of decent songs - is what hurts this album so much. CSNY sound in terrific voice most of the way through, the 'live' performances and the steady production are a major improvement on 'American Dream' and there's much more of a 'unity' to these songs, a sort of theme about looking towards the future that makes it far from a terrible record. However very uncharacteristically it's the songs that let this album down - which is a little like saying that George Bush has a nice speaking voice while ignoring everything he says with it. You have to ask - what on earth were the rejected songs like? We know in a few instances: Crosby's 'Climber' was re-recorded for the second CPR album 'Just Like Gravity', with the CSNY version from these sessions also coming out on his 2006 box set 'Voyage' and very nice it is too, up to the other Crosby songs on the record anyway with it's very Crosby-ish tale of a mountain as a metaphor for life, people living because it's 'there'. Neil's songs, too, we know about because they appeared on his 'Silver and Gold' album, which ironically suffers from the completely opposite problem (better songs than late on average, but with terribly bland and lacklustre performances). Had the band chosen the best or at least most CSN-like of these songs (the beautiful title track, which dated back to the 1970s and which they did sing on stage later, the faintly political 'Great Divide', the nostalgic 'Distant Camera' or the spooky 'Razor Love') then this album might have been great, not just a tad disappointing (the same goes had CSN guested throughout that entire album). Rotten song that it is, even 'Buffalo Springfield Again' might have made more sense had fellow Springfielder Stills played on it (although I suspect that Neil's naive line about 'we had a band - but it broke up', with no mention of the five times that Young walked out on them, would have set Stephen off guffawing).  I also suspect that the Stills/Nash collaboration 'Wounded World' (later released on the Stills album 'Man Alive' in 2005) might also date from this period, given how soon Stills started playing it in concert (plus the fact that he and Nash didn't spent much time together between 1999 and 2005). Anyway, whatever was meant to be on this album, surely it should have been better than what did make the album - and if not then shouldn't 'Looking Forward' have at least been longer? (At 44 minutes it's rather short for the CD age and runs for  a full quarter of an hour less than 'American Dream', which by contrast might have sounded rather good had it been reduced to that length!) And what can the excuse possibly be for the first full CSNY cover song since Joni Mitchell's 'Woodstock' in Denny Sorokin's soppy album finale 'Sanibel'? The oft-repeated chorus line of 'and we sing ooh la la la every day' might well be the most irritating CSNY moment of them all, right up there with Crosby and Joni Mitchell's 'Yvette In English', Stills' misguided 'Tomboy', most of Nash's 'Innocent Eyes' and Neil Young's 'Lookout Joe' ruining an otherwise perfect 'Tonight's The Night'. Or Greendale. However bad this album is at times, it could never be as bad as Neil's soap opera about a patronising ecologist and her grandpa.

One thing I do like about this record is that it tries so hard to use the approaching millennia as something special. Every other band it seemed - including all of the other AAA bands - treated January 1st 2000 as just another day on the calendar rather than the start of a new century. This one, released a mere 67 days before it (well, the day everybody celebrated it on anyway) ushers in the Age Of Aquarius by urging people to take new stock of their lives, to sort out the best bits from the 20th century without the greed or the corruption and to believe that, just as in 1969, everything is possible. The fact that the world chose to ignore the quartet and went for greed and corruption in an even bigger way than before shouldn't get in the way of what a brave and CSNY-like statement that was. While few people collecting their records in 1969 would have given a second's though to the new century (and would have assumed the band would have been long gone by then anyway), I hope that a few people if told the news would have greeted that fact with a thumbs up or a peace sign or a 'right on, brother'. Against all the odds, CSNY had become brothers again, standing with a united front to see where the world was going to go next after as natural a break in the human ordering system as any you could hope to find - and there's something rather wonderful about that, like the 'updated' version of the 'American Dream' on their last get-together but sung with more hope and less irony and sarcasm (which suits Neil but not the others by and large). There are lots of references to the future on this album, especially on the de facto title track where Neil awakes to sunlight reminding him that 'good things happening to you and to me' are a possibility not just a hope. Crosby's son Django, born 1994, is a key presence on this album, a natural choice for an album cover (where he's seen 'playing' with the tape reels of the sort the band would have been using back in the day, a neat touch in an era of digital technology harking back as well as forward) and a natural inspiration to 'dad' Crosby, whose 'Dream For Him' offers the best motivation yet for standing up and doing what you know is right, even when everyone else tells you you're wrong: in years to come when your children ask you what you did in the 'war' (even in peace-time) you can tell them proudly. 'Stand and Be Counted' gets positively Jefferson Starship with its cries that with 'the millennium just about to start' Crosby wants everyone to stand up to evil, knowing that 'together we can make a difference'. Nash's 'Someday Soon' looks to the future too, telling his audience that all will be well if 'you have faith in what you do'. Stills, typically, defies the others to look back on 'Seen Enough', a short punkish history of life from 'The Woodstock nation' to the present, but even he cries that he's 'seen enough' as if urging the next generation being born in the next century to pick up where CSNY and co left off and finish the American Dream properly this time.

Alas, while 'Looking Forward' is full of good intentions, great performances, a lovely theme and one or two excellent songs, it's definitely a jump down in standards from previous LPs. Even 'American Dream' caught fire intermittently and once again Crosby came to the record's rescue with some of his best material of the period - by contrast Nash, Young and sometimes Stills sounds half asleep here. Leaving solo records aside for now, no collaboration between more than one member of the band had yet wielded such poor returns: even Crosby and Nash's 'Whistling Down The Wire' and the Stills-Young Band's 'Long May You Run' were merely disappointing compared to what came before. Even as recently as 1994's 'After The Storm' signs of the band's creative revival had been strong, with an excellent run of songs from Stills and Nash and a feeling that at least the CSNY franchise had updated to a new audience, one filled with mean streets, empty hearts and 'unequal love' rather than protests and politicians. With Neil on board and Reprise interested (while a one album deal there would no doubt have been more had this album done better - although I was surprised actually researching this album to find it had peaked as high as #26 in America, the best since 'Dream') this could have been a great brave new future for the band as well as for the world, with the band at long last back centre stage just in time for a new millennia. Alas it's another wasted opportunity that didn't live up to its promise - and this time the band couldn't blame it on rows or band members walking out. Of course, 'Looking Forward' isn't all bad, with 'Seen Enough' and 'Dream For Him' both excellent additions to the CSNY canon, but in 'Sanibel' 'Slowpoke' and 'Out Of Control' especially the band have also hit a new low. It is perhaps not merely co-incidence that this, to date, the last full CSNY studio recording and I wouldn't hold your breath for another one just yet despite the well received tour of 2006...

'Faith In Me' isn't the best place to start, a rather noisy and unfocussed Stills rocker that sounds like it's trying a little too hard. The song sounds like a self-conscious update of 'Only Waiting For You', the rather winning opening song from 'After The Storm' with a couple who married in a vow of faith struggling to hold on to it as the marriage gets older. Then again, there's also the subplot that Stills might be singing to the band here, promising the world during a difficult time for CSN/Y that 'we really do know better and we do belong together'. However Stills has once again updated his love of latin music and equated it with reggae, which just about worked on '(Got To Keep) Open' but is another stage further along the road here. Stills' patois-style vocal is irritating, as is his decision to open the album with swearing ('Life's a ***') - swearing is fine in it's place but it's something you work up to in an album, not place as the opening throwaway part of a song. Noticeably Nash, who sings a lovely counter-vocal alongside Stills most of the way through, drops out on this first verse. There is however a lovely and unexpected chord change, the whole song suddenly shifting up a gear as the band sing about how 'you're always in a hurry to be someplace you don't want to be when you arrive' - virtually CSNY's theme tune given their splits and reunions down the years and another hint that Stills really is singing about 'them' (note his sigh on the line: 'such a waste of time'!) Musically too this backing track is a little chaotic, with Stills and his old Manassas pal Joe Lala throwing every bit of percussion they can t this track. This is very nearly another Stills solo masterclass in fact with Stephen playing bass, organ, cowbells, timbales, maracas and something called a 'baiaa' in the sleevenotes (do they mean a 'baya', a type of Indian tabla?) The highlight though is Young's blistering lead guitar frills and a storming solo near the end which do suit the song really well - you can see why Stills was so desperate to get his old colleague involved on this track, although quite why Young was so eager to join with a song deeply under Stills' average hit rate is less obvious. Not a great start.

Not that Young's title track 'Looking Forward' is any more inspired, although it's stark acoustic backing  is a lot more suitable for the band and leaves lots of space for the single best CSNY vocal performance on the album with everyone singing much lower than normal to accommodate Neil's lead, though still in their usual place with Stills below, Nash on top and Crosby in the middle (quite often they'll switch over when accompanying Neil, so that Crosby and Nash sing low and Stills is in matching falsetto). The song itself is standard late 90s Neil fare: feeling uninspired as he sits down to write a song he merely tells us about the writing process and everything he can see around him as he writes and sings his melody out loud. Like many of this period's Neil Young songs I can't quite tell if the result is profound or simple. The chorus sounds almost like a slap in the face to a band who once sang hopefully 'love is coming to us all' and represented the youth of the day - Neil almost cackles his way through a line about 'trying not to use the word old' in reference to his feelings that day and adds the drippy chorus line 'looking forward all that I can see is good things happening to you and to me'. Hmmm. Unusually the song is also rather short with a single two-verse-and-chorus structure which is repeated throughout again and then ends uncomfortably after a second straight repeat of the first verse, the song hanging mid-air as if the story still has a way to run. Given Neil's mischievous side and this album's loose theme about where the band stands in the present he might be being cheeky here by suggesting the band have been recycling themselves in contrast to his own increasingly adventurous (though not always in a good way) solo career. If he is then more fool him: the only reason this song works as well as it does (being arguably Neil's best on the album) is that it seems like a comfy warm blanket full of all the ideals CSNY once held so high but haven't used in a while: the full-on vocals, the acoustic backing, the loosely hippie hopeful lyrics. Sadly its a song that lacks the 'real' ethos of CSNY though - that the negative sides of living can be inverted and turned into a positive and that anger and sadness can be turned into a call for social justice that will put all these things right, someday. If you didn't know CSNY before buying this album I'm not you'd get that from this track, which is otherwise highly suited to the band.

Crosby's strident 'Stand And Be Counted' is another song that critics picked on at the time for being naive, David calling on all the listeners to stand with him on the band's response to injustice and greed. back in 1999 it seemed that way a little too: the times that Crosby quotes in this song (like the 'Chinese boy and that oncoming tank' in Tiananmen Square standing up to Soviet might in a very public way (Crosby sings 'I wonder who he was' so I'll tell him: it's generally accepted that he was a 19 year old student named Wang Weilin, although some reports since have differed). While 'tank' and it's rhyme of 'thank' is far from the best line Crosby ever wrote (and the rhyme of 'dawn' and gone' frankly isn't one), there is at least something about the old CSNY fire about this song, which doesn't simply fade away into old age peacefully. Crosby makes it clear how big a role music can play in politics too, inspired by a snatch of a song he hears on the radio and 'loving' how it makes him feel when it says that we all have a chance to 'stand be counted' (sadly I haven't a clue what song this was, if there was one - as we've seen 1999 was a very 'empty' year for music and any protest song would have stood out; of course this could be an 'old' song, one of those by Pete Seeger, Joan Baez or Harry Belafonte, all of whom Crosby clearly adored judging by the book of 'musical protest figures' he published in 2001 and which was named after this song). The third verse even has him impressed by his older self's fight, a middle aged man settled into family life amazed to see some old footage of him and his comrades 'standing brave and trim' before 'I know that I was him', a lovely moment for anyone who too has followed CSNY into complacent middle age. Musically Crosby's written himself a better tune and the chorus is especially lumpy but a fantastic full on band performance from all four of CSNY (the first, really, since 'Ohio' 27 years earlier!) rescues this, with some excellent Stills-Young guitar duels and a bravado backing track that continues 'After The Storm's trend of being as hard as nails. Unusually Young plays the chunky rhythm and Stills sort of power-slides over him, while Crosby's live vocal is delightful, making this track sound like the long lost brother of 'Almost Cut My Hair' with Crosby rebellious and proud of it. All in all one of the better tracks on the album, if more for the performance than the song itself.

All four of CSNY seem to be getting a song each in the early days of the album and that leaves Nash with his first of two ballads 'Heartland'. Like the others Nash sounds a tad uninspired here, delivering what fans would have been expecting instead of what he can do. That's a shame because some of the lyrics on this song are actually rather good, Nash reflecting on growing older and finding his friends and colleagues 'come and go', returning to another album theme (and one that he used to sing about a lot with The Hollies on 'Look Through Any Window' and the gorgeous 'Elevated Observations'), viewing the world from afar and watching people 'hurry by' at a different speed to himself. Nash then moves on to the rather odd idea of a shared 'heartland' where people can 'share their hopes and dreams' and 'always find their way back home'. Now that 'Drop Box' has been invited (a system of sharing not quite hopes and dreams but certainly creative work and constructive comments) this song makes more sense (again adding to the feeling across this album that CSNY are soothsayers). There's a particularly nice middle eight where Nash sings along with Stills, an unusual combination out the four which works rather well, Graham's still pure falsetto purring against Stephen's increasingly growly tenor (this actually works better than the second verse, sung by the more natural pairing of Crosby-Nash). Alas the melody is so singularly unmemorable and the chorus especially is so gauche that even these excellent ideas fall flat. Neil tries to drive the song on with some stinging guitar but it's too forceful for this sweet little song and Mike Finngan's large dollops of swirly organ don't help matters much either. One of those Nash songs that works better as a poem than a song.

'Seen Enough' is also viewed as something of a disappointment by most CSN fans but I have to say I love it. Following on from his contributions to 'After The Storm', this is Stills updating not just his sound but his audience from old age to teenagers, commenting on the problems he sees for the youngest decade around in 1999 and playing them at their own game with a semi-rap song (linked back to the past with the line in the sleevenotes that it was 'inspired by Bob Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'). The closest song to this in the CSN canon is the career highlight 'Word Game', Stills spitting invectives like a hoary old blues singer and it's welcome to see Stills' back to having emotion driving his songs again, although the mood here is more laidback and rather less intense. 'I lost my innocence over intolerance' Stills starts, speaking out that even now 25 years after CSN tried to put it right 'over the indignities heaped on the black man', sent by white people to church to bow to white icons (who would have been black anyway given the setting for most of the Bible is in the far East).  He turns next to his own 'Woodstock generation' (dismissed as 'a little bit flaky, but no hesitation', a pretty neat summary of an era of youths who always jumped in head-first) set against the back-drop of the cold war, 'arrogant old men with domino theories'. Their off-spring are then left with the repercussions 'people you never met locked in  the basement hot-wired to the net' (this is 1999 remember - the internet had been around for all of three years at best at this point unless you were really into your computers). Another verse has this turning them into 'dead drunk dead stupid cyberpunks' and 'gigabyte meth freaks' although Stills sees links between the two, having them playing fantasy games online against Vietnam Veterans unable to cope without combat in their lives. Stills' answer: the internet is great but gets out of hand, full of people 'who got all the answers but ain't got a lick of sense, practising psychiatry without a license' - why it's as if he was reading Alan's Album Archives! Throughout we come back to the same chorus: how dare 'adults' look down on the 'kids' when they're such bad role models themselves: 'What's a kid supposed to think when the adults are all such hypocrites, impossibly smug, I have seen enough of them, I had had quite enough, I split!' A glorious vocal performance from Stills - his last truly great lead to date - really makes this song, punctuated by CSY harmonies at key moments and a slinky backing track that spells trouble. The result caught quite a few people on the hop (an old band recording in a new style? Well of course it's bad - I don't even need to hear it!') but rap stars are actually the closest of all musicians to the CSNY manifesto to fight injustice today, now that rock has had its teeth loosened by years of poor bands, lacklustre reunions and its association with pop. This is exactly the sort of thing CSNY should have been doing and Stills in particular does it extremely well.

Alas 'Slowpoke' sucks all that energy out of the album like a sponge. A deeply odd Neil Young song, this one has the singer trying to slow down a growing relationship which in retrospect is almost certainly about his current girlfriend at time of writing Daryl Hannah (there's even a line about her being 'a mermaid and a little girl' - her most famous role in 1984 Tom Hanks film 'Splash') - the pair would have met about here although only become an 'item' as late as last year. Neil goes on to throw in a few surreal references to taking it slow, cross-dressing ('I'm going to run with you, wear all your clothes and do what you do') and is already heading into 'Storytone' territory by see-sawing between ecstasy and guilt over the wife left behind ('Something is missing - but something is found'). This song is unbelievably cryptic given that nobody knew about the relationship at the time (even CSN probably didn't know, given Crosby's shock and outrage about Neil leaving his wife in an interview this year - and if Crosby is shocked then you know you've done something enormous!) That ought to put 'Slowpoke' on the same level as the similarly cryptic 'Country Girl' from 'Deja Vu' - however this mystery doesn't sound quite as enticing a one to solve. Instead of a 'country girl' working as a waitress 'too tired to keep the change' yet 'too young to pay' pulling the narrator into an entirely new way of life this is a track low on passion, where by it's own admission 'the song is gentle and the song is long', even if returns to Nash's theme of people hurrying, scurrying by ('When I was faster I was always behind' Neil sings sage-like). The word 'slowpoke' itself is rather an odd and lumpy one and CSNY sound downright uncomfortable singing it, however beautiful they sound together. File under forgettable.

Luckily Crosby's 'Dream For Him' - the start of the second side had this album ever actually been released on vinyl - is another album highlight. Becoming a dad at the rather late age of 53 (for the second time as it happens, although Crosby wasn't around for James Raymond's upbringing in the pre-fame days) has clearly affected Crosby's life in a major way, making him see life anew in the same way that has an uncanny resemblance to his own 'breakthrough' song 'What's Happening?!?!?' (from Byrds album 'Fifth Dimension'). This time he's explaining why the world works the way it does not to himself but to his son, in an imagined conversation he dreads having to have in the future and which will take in 'everything from Jesus to John Wilkes Booth', the old Crosby coming out as he asks again why 'they lie in the house and senate too - only get close to the truth when it suits them too'. SNY come in like a ghost of angels from on high commenting on the action at certain moments, chiming in with Crosby as he talks about being 'uncomfortable lying to a child - feels like building a trap for something wild'. For Crosby, as ever, the truth is what matters in all things - but now, for the first time, he has to balance his need for honesty against his concerns over what that might do to someone he loves and hasn't experienced the darker side of life for himself yet. The melody for the song reflects Crosby's troubled state of mind, flowing relentlessly on and on, with even the soothing chorus not being enough to stop yet another dark though occurring to him. Edgy and questioning, dark and brooding, the older Crosby is once again the closest to his younger self, at one with the more personal autobiography and quietly jazzy numbers he's been writing for spin-off band CPR (son and 'R' in 'CPR' James Raymond even plays piano on this, his first appearance on a CSN/Y record). What's interesting to note is how becoming a parent affected CSN and Y in very different ways, all of them interesting parents relatively late in life in their late 30s: Stills alternates between pride and guilt in 'his' father song 'To Mama From Christopher And The Old Man' ('Stills' 1975), vowing not to give in to the excesses of his youth; Nash is awed by his 'Magical Child' which he watched being born like a conjuring trick (a track from his 1979 record 'Earth and Sky'), while Neil is more concerned with his son Ben's problems battling cerebral palsy and his desire to communicate to him everything Crosby pours out in this song (see most of 1982's 'Trans'). Crosby, typically, is more confused with morality and whether the world will shape up to what he wants for his son, a moving moment on a rather emotionless album, nicely played by another cracking full on band performance with Stills' 'concerned parent' guitar frills especially on the money.

'No Tears Left' is quite emotional though, having said that, finding Stills at his emptiest and most despondent. He virtually screams this song's bitter lyrics on a recording made very early on in the album sessions in November 1996  and which probably only features Neil via a brief solo in the middle from years later (were Crosby and Nash's harmonies dubbed later too? They don't quite fit). This is another Stills song that can be viewed as being about a personal relationship breaking up or another political attack - people who are 'deaf and blind and cannot think, but now they want to be your shrink' and that 'mostly it's about control, they're terrified that you might go out there and find for yourself what they can't teach you' - is Stills attacking the music press who spent most of the 1980s and 1990s writing him off as a booze-sozzled wannabe? Certainly the guitar performance on this song is fierce and intense, as if trying to prove just how well Stills can play while Stephen sadly reflects vocally that this won't be enough, almost sobbing 'what the hell do I have left?!' The result is nicely fierce but like 'Faith In Me' a little chaotic, with a whole range of percussion and guitar tracks wailing up past each other. Stills' highly Dylanesque delivery with several extended lines that sound more like poetry than rock lyrics (and recall 'Move Around', his delightful philosophical work from the first 'Manassas' album of 1972) is decent enough but hard to hear with so much going on and for once the harmonies are distracting, sounding loud and clear and joining in at random moments as if giving the wrong impression of what the song's about. It would be unfair to call this song overall a mess - Stills' intense passionate lyrics and performance are exactly what this album needs about here to raise its game and there's a strong set of words too, but this track isn't exactly easy to listen to either.

Neil's 'Out Of Control', meanwhile, is pathetic. The writer of some of the greatest songs the world has ever known has been reduced to a clumsy repeated chord piano lick and lines like 'once on a hill there was a song, nothing was wrong, that's when time stood still'. This song is a nursery rhyme dressed up in pretty colours and even CSN sound mis-cast, Stills especially struggling with the quite complex lines his tortured voice has to sing. Once again this cryptic song only really makes sense now that we know about Daryl Hannah and Neil's effectively 'double life' - he wants to hold on to his old life as well as his new one and sighs that 'somewhere near the end lovers pretend, fake what they feel and take what they can get from love'. Only a very pretty middle eight ('Sky is fire, hell is blue') stays in the memory though, one sad quiet reflective moment where the song has seemingly righted itself and stopped that awful relentless banging piano that pricks away at Neil's guilty conscience all too believably. That presumably was the effect intended - Neil reflecting on how his new love brings those few short pleasing moments where his life makes sense before having to get on with his 'old' life all over again - but sadly that doesn't make this song any easier to listen to, or to understand for the first 15 years of release when Neil's relationship was firmly under wraps. Neil is clearly coming up with the poorest material on this album and you wonder why CSN plumped for this song rather than one of the far more suitable songs from 'Silver and Gold'.

Not that Nash's second sleepy ballad is much better. 'Someday Soon' is exactly what you'd expect a Nash ballad to sound like: sweet and cosy, hoping for better times soon if only we can 'keep holding on to the things that have brought you here', with so much of the journey still to go. It's a disappointingly average composition given the depth and poignancy of so many of the Nash songs on 'After The Storm' (his best set since 'CSN' in 1977) and while it's nicely performed with Nash both rawer and deeper than usual and with only the second full-on CSN harmony fest on the album, it still falls a little flat. Once again the middle eight is the best thing here, Nash suddenly soaring alongside Stills again as if some nasty hidden emotion has just caught him unawares and taken him out of his cosy mind-place ('When life's too hard to bear for you to take it, have faith in what you do!') It's interesting to hear Nash singing about faith so soon after Stills does exactly that and an unusual word choice for Graham who till now has taken 'faith' as one of the many aspects of the word 'love'. In short, this song is awfully pretty but it takes a very safe road and an album so short on great songs needs something more.

Neil's unwieldy 'Queen Of Them All' gives him the most tracks on the album, although quite how this one got through quality control goodness knows. Like the title track of 'American Dream' it's hard to tell whether the cute doorbell-style riff played by Neil on a celeste ('Ding dong! Ding dong dong!') and the heavy awkward percussion attack is meant genuinely or as pastiche. 'Don't know why I feel so good - but it's happening to me so I knock on wood!' runs the chorus on another song about a new love that makes more sense now that Neil's new relationship has been unveiled to the world. However there's an extra layer going on in this song too, Neil asking the rather odd questioning 'whose the radio?' (I always heard this line as 'boost the radio' but that's not what the lyric booklet says), his new love now taking the place of everything in his life: not just his new partner in life holding his hand and helping him 'take a stand' but taking the place of inanimate objects. Maybe even - whisper it quietly - the place of his muse, which till now has been simply music itself in all its shades (Neil's career had been dropping like a stone since 1997 Crazy Horse collaboration 'Broken Arrow' after a rather fine decade - is this why?!) A better arrangement might have made for an interesting song, especially with another excellent CSN harmony attack, but alas it's not to be: all you remember is the awkward structure of this song, the chaotic Joe Vitale drumming and that godawful celeste that keeps making me think my pizza delivery is ready and someone is at the door even though I haven't ordered anything (curses! Well it was worth a look just in case! And yes I am overdue my lunch - let's make this review quick shall we?!)

'Looking Forward' then ends in the most unexpected way possible. CSN had recorded a few cover songs on their last three 'trio' albums in 1982, 1990 and 1994 but these tended to be unexpected ones no one would have expected from CSN or those written by friends and collaborators like Craig Doerge. 'Sanibel' by Danny Sarokin is exactly the sort of silly trite hippie mess lesser writers like Donovan come up with and which non-fans who don't 'get' the weight that CSN brings erroneously think their albums are full of: you know the sort of thing, a clichéd island paradise, a girl dressed in white and an ooh la la chorus that sets my teeth on edge every time I hear it. That's a shame because the basis of this track is very CSNY, complete with the imagery of water and sailing that runs throughout their canon from 'Wooden Ships' to 'Shadow Captain' and through to 'Southern Cross' - but dear God not like this, the sort of silly song that adults always think children like but rarely do. Nash takes the first verse and Young the second before all the band join in on the last verse - the best verse thanks to another of this album's unexpected key changes which really catches the ear after four minutes of drifting. had the rest of the song been more like this section it might have been enjoyable - but dear God I end up wanting to throw something every time I hear that 'ooh la la' chorus because I know it's going to stick in my head for days afterwards and automatically over-rides all the good bits of this album, CSNY at their most gormless. It's one hell of a long way down from 'Ohio' and the 'Deja Vu' album and even a slide down from 'American Dream'.

That's vaguely true of the whole album, which curiously tends to get a lot of things right which that album got wrong (the 80s production, the synthesisers, the overdubbing) in favour of some excellent as-live band performances and a nicely retro production. However the songs themselves are in general a touch down from that record: Crosby's excellent two songs still can't compete with his masterpiece 'Compass', Nash's two songs are by his standards dull and plain, while Neil seems to have lost his wit and pathos and come up with alternately boring and ordinary and deeply weird songs (though to be fair it might be that his colleagues picked the worst bunch of his latest batch of songs). Only Stills improves on his last album tally, with some fiery guitar work and the excellent 'Seen Enough', although even he's taken a back seat after providing so many gems on 'After The Storm'. Had this been one of many CSNY albums out there - the band's 29th album (which is where it sits in our CSN chronology of solo, duo, trio and quartet albums, plus whatever Manassas counts as) rather than merely their third we could have let this go. There are some good ideas, even a few great ones and the chance to hear CSNY combining forces from near-enough the start of a project for once is terrific, with many performances rescuing this album from total calamity. But a lot more was riding on this project than that: CSN needed a good album to rescue their career, get them the record contract they deserved and to make them some money after a lean period. What's more we needed them - or at least we will do soon when 9/11 hits (can you imagine it had that tragic event happened mid-CSNY tour? They'd have been at the site of the twin towers and singing 'Find The Cost Of Freedom' before the second tower was down, righting wrongs, calming hatred and bringing peace and healing to a world that needed it, the same way they did the night the Berlin Wall fell down (and they scored an unexpected local hit with that night's anthem 'Chippin' Away'). Instead Neil turned up alone to the reunion concert a year later and sang a painfully off-key cover of John Lennon's 'Imagine', which doesn't really compete). CSNY needed the world in 1999. The world needed CSNY in 2001.The discrepancy between those dates is ultimately what caused 'Looking Forward' to be another disappointing reunion project as compared to the album to end all albums. Is this the end for the foursome working together? On the face of it yes - Stills says the trio will never work together again after an aborted covers album in 2009, while Neil is further away from the trio than ever after Crosby's comments about his love life. Which of course means that they'll be back together sooner than you know because that's how they've always worked - as Crosby once told us the darkest hour is always just before the dawn. Let's hope that when it happens they get it right this time. 

A Now Complete List Of CSN/Y and Solo Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

'Crosby, Stills and Nash' (1969)

'Deja Vu' (CSNY) (1970)

‘Stephen Stills’ (1970)

'If Only I Could Remember My Name' (Crosby) (1971)

'Songs For Beginners' (Nash) (1971)

'Stephen Stills II' (1971)
‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ (1972)

'Stephen Stills-Manassas'  (1972)

'Wild Tales' (Nash) (1973)
'Down The Road' (Stephen Stills/Manassas) (1973)

'Stills' (1975)

'Wind On The Water' (Crosby-Nash) (1975)
'Illegal Stills' (Stills) (1976)
'Whistling Down The Wire' (Crosby-Nash) (1976)

'Long May You Run' (Stills-Young) (1976)

'CSN' (1977)
'Thoroughfare Gap' (Stills) (1978)
'Earth and Sky' (Nash) (1980)

'Daylight Again' (CSN) (1982)
'Right By You' (Stills) (1984)
'Innocent Eyes' (Nash) (1986)
'American Dream' (CSNY) (1988)

'Oh Yes I Can!' (Crosby) (1989)

'Live It Up!' (CSN)  (1989)

'Stephen Stills Alone' (1991)

'CPR' (Crosby Band) (1998)

‘So Like Gravity (CPR, 2001)

‘Songs For Survivors’ (2002)

'Deja Vu Live' (CD) (2008)

'Deja Vu Live' (DVD) (2008)

'Reflections' (Graham Nash Box Set) (2009)

'Demos' (CSN) (2009)

'Manassas: Pieces' (2010)

‘Carry On’ (Stephen Stills Box Set) (2013)

'Croz' (Crosby) (2014)

'CSNY 74' (Recorded 1974 Released 2014)

'This Path Tonight' (Nash) (2016)

‘Here If You Listen’ (Crosby)

The Best Unreleased CSNY Recordings
Surviving TV Appearances (1969-2009)
Non-Album Recordings (1962-2009)
Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part One (1964-1980)
Live/Compilations/Rarities Albums Part Two (1982-2012)
Essay: The Superest Of Super Groups?
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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